Shared from the 9/7/2018 The Miami Herald eEdition

COCONUT GROVE

State moves toward seizing Playhouse

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Arquitectonica

An architectural rendering shows the restored front building at the Coconut Grove Playhouse with a modern freestanding theater under Miami-Dade’s renovation plan.

Florida notified Miami-Dade last week it was in violation of its state lease of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, triggering a countdown to a potential demand that the county surrender the property for a sale on the open market.

“Specifically, you have failed to adhere to the timetable for the project development of the theater as required,” reads the Aug. 30 letter from Callie DeHaven, director of state lands under Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Many interim steps and potential exit ramps lie between the state’s warning letter and Miami-Dade actually losing the shuttered 1926 theater. But the intervention of the administration of Gov. Rick Scott represents the latest escalation in the long-running drama over stalled efforts to reopen the theater — an effort that currently has Miami-Dade suing Miami to overturn building restrictions pegged to the state-owned structure’s historic status.

The backstory involves a string of grand plans by private benefactors, interest from one of the most politically connected developers in Miami, and a brief bid by Kevin Spacey to helm the theater before a sexual-misconduct scandal ended the possibility of that star-fueled scenario.

Miami-Dade has already disputed the state’s claim that the alleged delays violate the 2013 lease that gave control of the property to the county and Florida International University, which is Miami-Dade’s state partner in the renovation effort. While Florida sees the lease requiring construction bidding to have been completed by October 2017, Miami-Dade contends the agreement requires only that the theater be finished and open by 2022.

Beyond a legal dispute on the lease language, the state letter captures an icy break between the Scott administration and the Gimenez administration over the playhouse project. Michael Spring, the Gimenez deputy overseeing the project, said he hadn’t yet seen the letter after the Miami Herald obtained a copy. He described himself as perplexed that Florida would fight Miami-Dade in the midst of the county’s uphill effort to resolve the long-running challenges surrounding the theater.

“What defies understanding is the state doubts our commitment to drive this project toward completion,” Spring said in an interview Wednesday. “They know exactly what we’ve been doing, and the amount of money we’ve spent.”

Miami-Dade has about $20 million earmarked for renovating the theater, money that would be borrowed under a 2004 referendum authorizing $2.9 billion in bonded debt for decades of county projects. The county plan is for a 300-seat theater, with the historic exterior facade and part of the original building restored and then melded with a new theater on the downtown Grove street known as Main Highway. Preservationists want the county to save the existing 1,100-seat auditorium, which last operated in 2006.

The county hasn’t announced a firm date for starting construction, but the website Miami-Dade created to refute criticism of the effort says the plan is to have the playhouse operating by the fall of 2021.

Some complications have stemmed from rival plans with large ambitions. Mike Eidson, a Coral Gables lawyer and an arts patron, wants Miami-Dade to let him take the lead and pursue a larger theater on the property.

Grove developer David Martin had once teamed with actor Kevin Spacey to pitch the star as in-residence director of a revitalized playhouse with a larger theater than what the county wanted. The Gimenez administration was cool to both proposals, and the Spacey effort had fizzled before he was embroiled in a scandal over allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen actors and others who had worked with him around the world.

The Gimenez administration also faced criticism on the playhouse delays from Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Scott’s lieutenant governor and a Grove resident who had arranged for the state to take over the theater from a failed nonprofit nearly two decades ago while Lopez-Cantera was in the state Legislature. He did not respond to a request for a comment on the heels of the Scott administration’s intervention in the Grove Playhouse dispute with a letter that has Lopez-Cantera’s name on the state letterhead. Lopez-Cantera is privately spreading word he plans to run for county mayor in 2020, when Gimenez must leave because of term-limit rules.

For now, the immediate fight over the playhouse involves Miami and Miami-Dade. The county is suing the city to overturn a vote by the Miami commission that all but required the plan for a larger theater favored by Eidson.

The Aug. 30 letter from the Scott administration declares both Miami-Dade and FIU to be in breach of the state lease — an unusual circumstance since FIU is also an arm of the state government.

Miami-Dade has four months to resolve the state’s allegations of a lease breach, and the county could also negotiate a resolution with the Environmental Protection department that stops short of meeting the deadlines demanded in the letter. If not, the letter could trigger the end of the county’s hold on the theater.

“We will evaluate the compliance status and next steps if 120 days passes,” said Lauren Engel, communications director for the agency. “As stated in the letter, continued violations could result in termination of the lease.”

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